Monday, 8 April 2013

James Joyce on Management

"—Because you don't save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don't know yet what money is. Money is power. When you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

—Iago, Stephen murmured"
-- James Joyce's Ulysses
Episode 2: Nestor
Irony of Ironies:  Incorrigible borrower James Joyce appears on the 10 pound note as a symbol of Irish commerce

Several years ago a spate of business books hit the bookstore shelves offering advice culled from the life and works of great writers like Shakespeare.   The idea was simple: if you examine the words of great writers, you'll surely distill some valuable management gems and business secrets that will help solve real life problems.

At least, that's the theory.

A series of other books were soon published on the application of management principles drawn from the lives and works of Sun Tzu, Winnie the Pooh and Jesus.

Knowing of my interest in Joyce, a friend, who teaches at one of Canada's leading MBA schools, once tried to persuade me to write a business book about Joyce's business and leadership secrets.  He suggested I call the book "James Joyce on Management" and he assured me that I'd have a runaway bestseller on my hands. 

After I stopped laughing, I gently broke the news to him that Joyce was one of the lousiest businessmen in literary history.   Despite my utmost respect and admiration for Joyce, I'd sooner take business advice from Piglet.  

For most of his life, Joyce was hopelessly in debt.  He was constantly scrounging money from friends, family and colleagues.  When he did have money in his pocket, he'd invariably splurge lavishly: eating at fine restaurants, drinking expensive Swiss wine and ordering rounds of drinks for his friends and anyone else fortunate to be around the bar when Joyce was flush.  Quite often, after a night of eating, drinking and revelry, he'd leave the restaurant in a drunken stupor with nothing left to pay his rent. 

There's a famous photograph of Joyce standing outdoors with a quixotic look on his face.  When asked what he was thinking about while being photographed, Joyce said "I was wondering would he lend me five shillings."

This is not to say Joyce didn't have an entrepreneurial spark.  He had several clever business ideas, yet  he was incapable of successfully implementing them.  He concocted a scheme to sell Irish Tweed in Trieste, that never got off the ground.  In late 1909 he spearheaded a project to open the first movie theatre in Dublin. However, the cinema, named the Volta, offered an eclectic selection of foreign language movies that didn't appeal to the English-speaking Dubliners.  After several months, Joyce sold his interest in the Volta for a loss.

So how did Joyce support himself and his family?

When Joyce first settled in Trieste, he began working as an English teacher at the Berlitz school.   Joyce's heart wasn't into his lessons, and he spent much of his time peppering his students with questions that would encourage answers he could use as fodder to support his writing.  Still, Joyce's services were in demand - and he befriended many of his students (and, naturally, regularly sponged money from them).

When money got extremely tight,  Joyce wrote to his younger brother Stanislaus in Dublin and summoned him to come live in Trieste.  Stanislaus idolized his older brother, appreciated his talents, and found it difficult to refuse his requests.  He arrived in Trieste in 1905 and started working as an English teacher at the Berlitz School alongside his brother.  Soon after, a large share of "Stannie's" salary was used to support his older brother's lifestyle.   

Another way that Joyce supported himself was through the generosity of his patrons.   In one of my earlier posts I wrote extensively on the generous patronage of Harriette Shaw Weaver, who is estimated to have given Joyce well over a million and a half dollars throughout his lifetime.   

Another quirk about Joyce was that he was notoriously litigious.  He steadfastly defended his intellectual property rights to prevent an American interloper from illegally selling a pirated copy of Ulysses in The United States.  In his later years he engaged in an almost comical lawsuit against a Canadian named Henry Carr, who worked in the local consulate office.  While living in Zurich Joyce received a gift of money from a patron and decided to organize an English theatre group that would perform Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest." In a decision he would soon regret, Joyce recruited Carr to be the male lead in his play.  Joyce and Carr soon got into a nasty dispute about theatre tickets and who should pay for the pants Carr wore in a theatrical performance.  Joyce refused to pay and Carr called him a "cad" and a "swindler."  Joyce sued for libel and Carr countersued.  In the end, it was a split decision, yet Joyce's losses were greater than his earnings.  Author Tom Stoppard wrote a wonderful play called "Travesties" that premiered in 1974 that featured the dispute between Joyce and Carr. 

Notably, Joyce had a vengeful streak.  He ultimately exacted revenge against Carr by naming one of the most unsavoury characters in Ulysses after him (the boorish Private Carr in the Circe episode).  While Carr may have tied the legal battle against Joyce, he lost the war, and his name will go down in infamy, eternally associated with a foul-mouthed violent bully.

* * * * *  

Now back to the central question of this blog: Can a reader garner any business advice from fiction?

Conveniently, Joyce deals with this very point in Ulysses, and effectively illustrates the pitfalls of blindly quoting Shakespeare to make a point.

In the second episode of Ulysses, Garrett Deasy, the bigoted schoolmaster, tries to persuade Stephen Dedalus to save some money from his salary by quoting dialogue from Shakespeare (see quote at the outset of this post).  However, the message goes lost on Dedalus, who adeptly realizes that Deasy is quoting from Iago, one of the most inhuman, evil characters in literature.

Come to think of it, countless cheapskates over the years have failed to help a person in need by quoting Shakespeare's famous line: "neither a borrower nor a lender be," likely unaware it's a quote from the blustering busy-body Polonius, who Hamlet calls a "tedious old fool."

It goes to show you...when someone tries to punctuate an argument by quoting Shakespeare, check out the source and the context.  If the advice comes from one of Shakespeare's notorious villans, run.

* * * * *

In the penultimate chapter of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom questions whether reading Shakespeare's works, not for pleasure but as a mode of instruction, would provide solutions to difficult problems in real life.

Joyce summed up Bloom's experiment with the following:

"In spite of careful and repeated reading of certain classical passages, aided by a glossary, he had derived imperfect conviction from the text, the answers not bearing in all points."

So here's a tautology:  by reading Ulysses you learn that you won't find the answers to your problems by reading literature.       

* * * * *

While I wouldn't recommend holding up Joyce as a business guru, I would contend that a great deal of insight into marketing and advertising can be gleaned by reading the words and thoughts of the main character in Ulysses: Leo Bloom.

Bloom is an experienced and talented advertising canvasser - and over the years he's developed a finely-tuned head for analyzing and assessing the effectiveness of ads.

Perhaps in my next post I'll take a closer look at advertising from the perspective of Bloom: literature's quintessential "Ad Man".

Leo Bloom personified the term "Ad Man" a generation before Don Draper was born
(granted, they're both fictional -- but you get the point)


  1. It's funny, but musicians are often the same way. Mozart was perpetually in debt, for example. I think it has something to do with the feast/famine nature of creative occupations. When a writer or musician gets paid, it's often in one large lump sum. However, they rarely get paid regularly, often going months without income. That means we go a bit crazy when we finally get that big check, then struggle along the rest of the time. It makes any financial planning a nightmare, since you never know from month to month how much money you're going to make.

  2. Very true, its the nature of being an artist that money is irregular, and unfortunately if you are not good at managing your funds this can easily lead to debt.
    Michael I also just wanted to say I'm really enjoying your blog, I've been researching Ulysses for some post-graduate coursework at uni and I stumbled across it. It's good to see Ulysses being discussed in a blog style, as reading the academic essays on his work can only get you so far! Especially good post on the Proteus episode which is my main focus.